by Ellen Castelow
Flora Sandes was the only British woman to officially fight on the front line in World War One.
Flora’s typical middle class upbringing did nothing to dampen her tomboy spirit. She rode, shot, drank and smoked! Not for her the genteel pursuits of a rector’s daughter – this adrenalin junkie craved excitement and adventure.
As soon as she could, she left the Suffolk countryside for the bright lights of London. Having trained as a stenographer, she then left the UK for a life of adventure abroad.
She found work in Cairo for a while before her restless nature took her to North America. She worked her way across Canada and the USA, where it is said she shot a man in self defence.
Returning home to England, instead of pursing the genteel hobbies of a middle class Edwardian woman, the tomboy Flora learned to drive, owned a French racing car, and joined a shooting club! She also trained as a nurse with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.
When war broke out in 1914 Flora, now 38 years of age, was living with her father and 15 year old nephew in London.
Not wanting to miss out on what she saw as another new adventure, Flora signed up as a volunteer with the St John Ambulance Service and with her unit, left Britain to travel to Serbia. After almost a year nursing wounded soldiers, Flora was fluent in Serbian and transferred to the Serbian Red Cross, working with a Serbian infantry regiment on the front line.
Fighting was fierce as the Austro-German forces advanced and the Serbians were forced back into retreat. Flora soon became involved in the fighting and was enlisted into the Serbian army on the field. The Serbian army was one of the few that allowed women to join up to fight.
She rose quickly through the ranks to Sergeant-Major. In 1916, she published ‘An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army’ to raise the profile of the Serbian cause and became quite a celebrity back home in England. Badly wounded by a grenade whilst fighting alongside her men in Macedonia, Flora was dragged back to safety under fire by one of her lieutenants. She suffered extensive shrapnel wounds to her body and her right arm was broken. Flora’s bravery under fire was recognised and she was awarded the King George Star by the Serbian government.
Despite her injuries, once recovered this indomitable woman was back in the fray in the trenches. She survived not only the war but also Spanish Influenza which killed so many after the war. She loved her years in the army and was determined to be ‘one of the boys’.
Demobilised in 1922, Flora found it impossible to adjust to everyday life back in England. She returned to Serbia and in 1927, married a White Russian officer who was 12 years her junior. Together they moved to the new kingdom of Yugoslavia.
In April 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by Nazi Germany. Despite her age (65) and her health, Flora again enlisted to fight. Eleven days later the Germans defeated the Yugoslav army and occupied the country. Flora was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo.
After the war Flora found herself penniless and alone, her husband having died in 1941. This did not stop her travelling though: over the next few years she went with her nephew Dick to Jerusalem and then on to Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe).
She finally returned to Suffolk where after a brief illness, she died on 24th November 1956 aged 80. She had renewed her passport shortly before she died, in preparation for more adventures!
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